Difficulties in Achieving Coherent State and Local Fiscal Policy at the Intersection of Direct Democracy and Republicanism: The Property Tax as a Case In Point

Professor Robinson explores the uneasiness present when acts of “direct democracy” through means of voter referenda and ballot initiatives conflict with the ideals of representative government, using fiscal matters, such as the property tax, as an example.

Part I explores the changes that have taken place in the last two decades in voter strategy and in patterns of judicial interpretation, briefly reviewing the history of the property tax focusing on taxpayer reaction to long overdue attempts at administrative reform, and showing how that effort indirectly contributed to the “taxpayer revolt. “It further examines how and why broad-scale attempts to utilize non-tax sources of revenue to maintain services were largely unsuccessful. It also briefly explore the extent to which change tracks voter sentiment. Lastly, it traces the expansion of voter activism to taxes in addition to the property tax, noting the parallel emergence of two additional tactics: the imposition of required supermajority action–either electoral or legislative-to validate any generic tax increase and the enactment of revenue caps.

Part H of the Article highlights initiatives’ patterns of departure from desirable fiscal policy identifying those factors inherent in ballot-box activity that make it difficult, if not impossible, to be attentive to such factors. It shows how legislative activity can accommodate fiscal policy as well as social policy while exercising taxing and spending authority and contrasts the initiative process showing why deliberate attentive response to underlying policy and competing considerations is impossible. It argues that this voter seizure of control significantly forecloses the subsequent possibility of competent long-term legislative financial oversight (i.e. budget-making) in general and then argues that the initiative process impedes the formation and effective interaction of political coalitions on either side of or across the aisle possibly causing disenfranchisement in some cases. Voter control ultimately undermines the efficacy of government in general to everyone’s detriment.

Lastly, Part III, explores whether expressions of popular will with regard to fiscal matters can ever be infused into representative government without unduly diluting the former and crippling the latter Assuming that repeal of the process is politically impossible, Professor Robinson suggests steps that might be taken by the Courts, by legislative bodies, and by the voters themselves to make the initiative process contribute to rather than trump representative government.